“Quantum Leaper”

This week issue 40 of Infinity magazine comes out, featuring a couple of articles I wrote, including one about the cult sci-fi series Quantum Leap. The show saw Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) bouncing around time into other people’s bodies and striving to put right what once went wrong, while his holographic friend Al (Dean Stockwell) smoked cigars, letched, and relayed exposition from Ziggy the computer.

I end the article by wondering whether it’s time for someone like Netflix to bring the show back (it definitely is). What I don’t mention in the magazine is that – unbeknownst to almost everyone – Quantum Leap has already been rebooted once.

This, my loyal readers, is the story of Quantum Leaper.

 

Season One (1995)

As teenagers, my friend David Abbott and I were huge Quantum Leap fans, and were bereft when the show was axed in 1993. I was developing an interest in filmmaking, having dabbled in 2D computer animation on my Atari ST and borrowed my grandfather’s Video-8 camcorder on a couple of occasions. When I was given that camcorder for my 15th birthday, David and I decided that we would make our own version of Quantum Leap, which we imaginatively titled Quantum Leaper.

The first episode was called “Just What the Doctor Ordered” and saw my character – named, again with great imagination, Neil – leaping into a doctor just as his patient is flatlining. I don’t remember much about the plot, but I do remember that we climbed the nearby Malvern Hills to film a fight scene.

Dave played Albert, my holographic helper, communicating with Project Quantum Leap’s supercomputer Ziggy by means of a special hand-link, just like Dean Stockwell did. Unlike Dean Stockwell’s, this hand-link was a calculator.

The two of us also played all the supporting characters (often with the judicious addition of a hat or jacket) and operated the camera, unless we were both in shot, in which case it was locked off. Much of the the editing was done in camera – rewinding the 8mm videotape, cueing it up to the exact moment the last piece of action ended, then hitting record and calling action simultaneously – and the rest I did tape-to-tape with two VCRs connected together. A cheap four-track disco mixer enabled the addition of music (badly composed by me) and sound effects (many of which were sampled from Quantum Leap itself). As YouTube was still years away, the only viewers for the series were our parents and friends, forced to sit down in front of the TV and watch it off VHS.

Episode two, “Boom!”, saw the fictional Neil as a bomb disposal expert supposedly in Northern Ireland in 1980, though like the first episode it was all shot in and around my house. My sister Kate was drafted in to play a journalist whose life Neil has to save.

“A Leap into the Blue” was the next episode, with Neil in the body of a parachutist. Scenes of characters in free-fall were shot with us standing in front of a white wall; I digitised the footage on my ST with a Videomaster cartridge and composited scrolling clouds into the background. The resolution of the Videomaster was very limited – maybe 320×240 – the frame rate was very low too, and it could only do black and white.

A digitised visual effect using a shot of a plane stolen from some TV programme or other

Next we shot a “pilot” episode explaining how Neil and Albert switched places with Sam and Al. I remember digitising shots of Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell from Quantum Leap and compositing them atrociously into our own footage. At about 30 minutes long, the pilot was double the length of our other episodes.

Then we continued the series where we’d left off. Dave’s script “One Giant Leap” has Neil on a space shuttle mission, an episode that included NASA footage taped off the TV. We made almost no attempt to create sets; the space shuttle cockpit was a plain wall, a computer keyboard and a piece of card to cover an incongruous bookcase.

The space shuttle cockpit “set”

The next two episodes find Neil meeting (and shooting) an evil future version of himself, then leaping into the crazy future space year of 2017. The latter involves a flying car – my mum’s Citroen AX with the wheels framed out, intercut with an extremely crude CGI model.

Dave’s episodes “Virtual Leaping” and “Bullets Over Leaping” see Neil become a VR programmer (with a headset made of Lego) and then an actor (in a studio suspiciously like Dave’s shed).

The VR headset “prop”

My next episode has Neil leaping into himself and saving his father’s life. (My actual dad provided some splendidly wooden acting.) But doing this causes a paradox, and the season finale sees Neil and Albert swap places (as Sam and Al do in a classic Quantum Leap episode) and Neil having to restore the timeline to prevent the destruction of the universe.

We were ambitious. You can say that much for us.

 

Season Two (1996)

The following year, while doing our GCSEs, we began work on a second season. In between I’d made a bad 40-minute comedy, Bob the Barbarian, and an appalling feature-length sci-fi film, The Dark Side of the Earth, and I’d learnt a few things that would lift the production values of Season Two very slightly. I’d also nagged my parents into buying me a genlock which would let me superimpose CGI over analogue video, meaning I didn’t have to digitise footage and suffer the horrendous image degradation any more.

The holographic Albert enters the Imaging Chamber, an effect enabled by my new genlock.

The actual Quantum Leaping effect from this era of the show is surprisingly decent given the equipment we were working with. We would lock the camera off and jump-cut to a blue filter being over the lens, then a white glow would creep over me – an animation I achieved in software called Deluxe Paint – followed by tendrils of electricity. The screen would then fade to white and a similar effect would play out in reverse to show the leap in.

Leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong…

Another improvement was that we managed to convince a few other friends to act in the series, including fellow Quantum Leap fan Lee Richardson, as well as Chris Jenkins, Conrad Allen, Matt Hodges, Si Timbrell and Jim McKelvie. Recognising my lack of musical talent at last, I abandoned composing and instead used soundtrack CDs from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Dennis McCarthy), the John Woo film Broken Arrow (Hans Zimmer), and the Doctor Who story “The Curse of Fenric” (Mark Ayres). Albert’s hand-link prop got an upgrade too, from a calculator to a custom Lego build with flashing lights.

Lee Richardson “acting” in the control room “set”

Season Two opens with Dave’s episodes “Project Hijacked” and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” which focus on events at Project Quantum Leap, supposedly a high-tech facility in the New Mexico desert in 2005. In reality it was a living room with a control console made out of painted cardboard boxes and Christmas lights. In an early manifestation of my cinematography leanings, I snooted the ceiling light with a rolled-up piece of silver card, lending a little bit of mood to the look.

At the time, Dave’s family were training a hearing dog, Louis, so I wrote an episode to feature him; “Silence is Golden” sees Neil leap into a deaf man, and was followed by the morbid “Ashes to Ashes” where he leaps into a corpse.

The next episode, Dave’s “Driven to Distraction”, is probably the best of the lot. For once there were few enough characters that no-one needed to confusingly play dual roles, and there is plenty of action to boot. (I uploaded this episode to YouTube so long ago that the ten-minute time limit still applied.)

The X-Files-inspired “Close Encounters of the Leaping Kind” comes next, with Neil as a ufologist bothered by a shadowy government agent. Then Neil becomes a teenager who must prevent a drugs overdose, then a one-armed man who must overcome prejudice to hold down a job. Cringingly entitled “Not So Armless”, this latter was shot in a newsagent’s owned by a friend’s parents, one of the series’ few non-domestic locations.

Like Quantum Leap we had a mirror shot in every episode where Neil would see the leapee’s reflection looking back at him. Sometimes Dave would track the camera behind my back and we’d hide a cut in the darkness to swap me with whoever was playing the reflection. Another time we pretended the serving hatch in Dave’s house was a mirror and the two of us synchronised our movements. For a fight scene in “Not So Armless” Chris hid one arm inside his t-shirt so that Neil’s mirror image could appear to punch the antagonist with an invisible fist!

Facing mirror images that were not his own…

The penultimate episode of the season features several brief leaps, ending with one to Hiroshima in 1945, where the A-bomb detonation (more footage off the TV) causes both Neil and Albert to leap simultaneously. In the finale, Albert becomes a mountaineer caught in an avalanche, while Neil is a member of the rescue team – a premise thieved from the Quantum Leap novel “Search and Rescue”. We started shooting it during snowy weather, but the snow thawed and the episode was never completed. The friends who had been appearing as supporting characters now had part-time jobs and couldn’t spare the time for filming.

 

Legacy

We wrote all six episodes of a third season which would have explained how Neil became the evil future version of himself seen in an earlier episode, but nothing was ever filmed.

In 1997 we began a remake of the pilot using the experience we had gained since shooting the original, but again it was never completed. One part we did film was an action sequence with me on the roof rack of a car while the driver swerves around trying to throw me off. We shot this on Malvern’s Castlemorton Common and used a dummy of me for some of the wider and more dangerous shots. Its acting was probably better than mine. We remade the scene four years later as part of my Mini-DV feature The Beacon.

Today only five of the 20 Quantum Leaper episodes that we made survive, the rest having been callously taped over at some point in my late teens. That’s probably for the best, as most of it was hilariously bad, but making it taught me a hell of a lot about filmmaking. Without it, I doubt I’d have a career in cinematography today.

His only guide on these journeys is Al, an observer from his own time…
“Quantum Leaper”

How to Make a Living from Cinematography

Seven years ago, I transitioned to making a living purely as a director of photography on drama. I’ve since added writing and making an online course to my repertoire, but drama is still paying most of the bills. If you’re doing bits of what you love around a day job in an office, or freelance corporate videos, being able to leave those things behind you and pay the rent with stuff you enjoy doing can seem like the Holy Grail. So below I’m going to list the three things which I think, in combination, allowed me to make that transition.

 

1. Quantity of experience: putting in the hard graft

When I stopped doing corporates in 2014, I had been in the industry for a decade and a half. I had made two no-budget features off my own back, and photographed half a dozen other no-budget features and countless shorts, as well as the rent-paying work on participatory films, training videos and web video content. (Whether this kind of stuff really counts as being in “the industry” is debatable, but that’s a subject for another post.)

When I apply for a job I always start by introducing myself as a DP with x years of experience, because I think it speaks volumes about my passion and commitment, and proves that I must have talent and be pleasant to work with, if I’ve been able to keep doing it for so long.

The number of IMDb credits I had is also important. I had almost 50 at the time I made the jump, over half of those as a cinematographer.

How many years of experience and how many IMDb credits you need before you can make the jump could be more or fewer than I needed, depending on the other two factors on this list and the quality of the contacts you make. (I haven’t included contacts as a separate item on this list because it comes naturally out of the jobs you do. Artificially generating contacts, for example by attending networking events, does not lead to jobs or career progression, at least not in my experience.)

 

2. Quality of experience: getting that killer production on your reel

I first noticed a change occurring in my career when I added material from Ren: The Girl with the Mark to my showreel. There was a noticeable increase in how often I was getting short-listed and selected for jobs. And The First Musketeer, in conjunction with Ren, led directly to my first paid feature film DP gig.

What was it about these two projects which enabled them to do for my career what fifteen years’ worth of other no-budget projects couldn’t? Production value. Simple as that. They looked like “real” TV or film, and not in the way that your friends and family will look at anything you shot and go, “Wow, that looks like a real film!” They looked – even to people in the industry – like productions that had serious money behind them. And people are lazy when they’re looking at showreels. If they’re hiring for a job that has serious money behind it, they want to see material on your showreel that appears to have serious money behind it.

Most scripts that you will read for shorts or no-budget features will be written to make them achievable with little or no money. Often they will be set mainly in one house (the director’s, or a bland-looking Airbnb) in the present day, with no production design and only three or four characters. If the script is well written, and you’re an actor, then working on such a project could be great for your career. For most crew members, it’s a waste of time.

For DPs in particular, quality production design is incredibly important on your showreel. Most people who watch your reel won’t really be able to separate the cinematography from the overall look of the piece – the art, the costumes, the make-up, the locations – so getting showreel material that is visually stunning from all departments is the only way to kick your career up to the next level.

 

3. The Fear: making a living at it because you have to

Before I stopped doing corporates, I thought I was making every effort to get work as a drama DP. But I was wrong. As soon as I gave up the safety net of corporates, my whole attitude to drama work changed. Suddenly I had to do it, and I had to get paid reasonably well for it, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. It made me drive a harder bargain when negotiating my fee, it made me turn down unpaid projects and as a consequence it changed the way producers and directors saw me, and the kinds of projects they would consider me for.

Do not underestimate the value of The Fear. It’s not a magic wand, and you do need to have the experience and the killer production(s) on your reel before you make the jump, but The Fear will give you wings and help you get to the other side.

How to Make a Living from Cinematography

20 Years of Blogging

Today is the 20th anniversary of my first ever blog post. On March 4th, 2001 I wrote the inaugural “journal” entry on the-beacon.com, a website about a terrible no-budget action move I was writing, directing, producing, etc, etc. (clip below). My blog continued across two other project-specific websites for the next few years before they all got integrated into neiloseman.com in 2011.

There is a history of my blogging exploits in my 1,000th post from January 2015, and if you’re interested in blogging yourself, I shared some tips not long afterwards. (The post you’re reading now is the 1,261st, in the unlikely event that you care.) If you visit the Blog Archive page you can delve back into my old posts, either by month and year, by production or by topic.

It is strange to think how different the world was when I wrote that first post. The Twin Towers were still standing. Buying a take-away latte was swanky and cosmopolitan. Ordering something remotely meant getting a catalogue, then filling in a form and posting off a cheque and waiting up to 28 days. Your choice of filming formats came down to celluloid or standard definition DV. Everyone still took their holiday snaps on 35mm. The internet was all dial-up. VHS was still the dominant home video format, though DVD was on the rise. “Netflix” was probably something fishermen did. Superhero movies were rare. Flat screens and touch-screens were a sci-fi dream. I for one didn’t own a mobile phone. There was no social media. The term “blog” had been coined but wasn’t widely known. And the idea of a pandemic shutting down the world for a year, keeping us from our loved ones and making us all mask up in Tesco’s was utterly inconceivable.

Blogging has certainly been useful to me. It helps me to organise my thoughts, and I frequently check my old posts to remind myself how I did something so that I can repeat the trick… or avoid making the same mistake again! It’s even got me work, writing for RedShark News since 2017 – a website edited by none other than Simon Wyndham, fight choreographer for that blog-starting film of mine, The Beacon. That in turn has led to me writing for British Cinematographer magazine since the end of last year.

It’s quite fitting that now, as back in March 2001, I am prepping for a feature film, and sharing that process on this blog (albeit in vague terms, as the project hasn’t been officially announced yet). The budget may be a tad bigger, and I may only be DPing rather than doing pretty much all the major jobs myself, but some things haven’t changed; in my second ever post, I complained about my main location being closed due to a disease outbreak…

20 Years of Blogging

How to Make High-end TV During a Pandemic

Many productions are up and running again, and a recent ScreenSkills seminar revealed how two high-end series were amongst the first to tackle TV-making during a global pandemic.

Death in Paradise is a long-running crime drama about fish-out-of-water British detectives – the latest played by Ralf Little – heading murder investigations on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie. Production of the show’s tenth season, originally scheduled for April, commenced instead in late July.

The Pursuit of Love is a mini-series based on the novel by Nancy Mitford, set between the two world wars. Lily James and Emily Beecham star as women in quest of husbands, in an adaptation written and directed by Emily Mortimer. Filming again began in late July, in South West England.

What both productions have in common, and a key reason why they were able to start up ahead of so many others, is that their insurance was already in place before lockdown hit. The policies include producer’s indemnity, covering costs outside of the production’s control.

Co-executive producer Alex Jones of Red Planet Pictures explained that Death in Paradise had a few other things going for it too. Most obvious of these was the location, the French archipelago of Guadeloupe, which formed a natural bubble. All cast and crew were tested for Covid-19 before flying out, then again seven days after arrival and at the start of each filming block. Having been around for ten years made adapting the production easier than starting one from scratch, Jones believes.

Ian Hogan, line producer of The Pursuit of Love, did not have the advantage of an established machine. He said that a full-time health and safety adviser with a background in location management spent weeks working out Coronavirus protocols for the period drama. Crew members each received a copy of these, and were required to agree that they would not go out in their spare time except for exercise and essential shopping. Every day they must declare remotely that they have no symptoms of Covid-19 before they can receive a green pass which allows them through location security. They must then take a temperature test before accessing the set.

Both producers insist that age and underlying health problems are not a barrier to work. Cast and crew who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 are given a personalised risk assessment with mitigation steps to follow.

Death in Paradise chose to film using the “one metre plus” social distancing rule common to both France and England. A former assistant director was hired as a Covid supervisor, a role which sometimes involved helping to re-block scenes to avoid physical proximity.

But for The Pursuit of Love, as the title suggests, intimacy was crucial. The producers opted for a close-contact system, dividing personnel into cohorts. A mobile testing lab with a capacity of 70 a day is always on location, and everyone is checked at least once a week. The Director’s Cohort – consisting of Mortimer, the cast, and key on-set crew like the DP, boom op and focus puller – are tested twice a week.

A monitor signal is distributed wirelessly around the set to production iPads and personal devices, to prevent a crowded video village. The DIT sends this camera feed via a local wifi network using Qtake.

Both productions require face-coverings. At least one director of Death in Paradise switched from a mask to a visor so that their cast and crew could read their facial expressions, so important when giving notes.

Visors are also used for close-contact work like make-up and costume, the two departments perhaps most affected by the pandemic. Hogan hired extra make-up trucks so that the chairs could be sufficiently spaced, and both productions expanded their crews to obviate the need for dailies. Instead, extra MUAs and dressers might be engaged for eight weeks out of 12, but on an exclusive basis so that they don’t risk spreading the virus to or from other sets.

Wardrobe fitting for supporting artists is much more involved than usual, as the same costume cannot be tried on multiple people without cleaning in-between. Greater numbers of costumes must be hired, and measurements that are taken remotely are much more important.

All of this is expensive, of course. Jones estimates it has added 15 per cent to Death in Paradise‘s budget, covered fortunately by the insurance. The pace of filming has slowed, but not as much as might be expected, with just two extra filming days per block, and slightly less coverage recorded than before.

Both Jones and Hogan praised the responsibility and enthusiasm with which their crews returned to work. They are positive about the future of TV production. While there have been fears that Coronavirus would shrink crews, Jones’s has actually grown, with a larger off-set support staff. “Our industry is booming,” he concluded, “and it will continue to boom when this is all over.”

This article first appeared on RedShark News.

How to Make High-end TV During a Pandemic

This Morning With Richard Not Judy

20 years ago today, I was on TV. I had my fifteen seconds of fame on a slightly obscure BBC2 Sunday morning show in the late nineties, primarily watched by stoned students. Yes, I was a King of the Show on Lee & Herring’s This Morning with Richard Not Judy.

The year was 1999. All anyone could talk about was The Phantom Menace and the Y2K bug. I had a rubbish beard that looked like the strap of a helmet. (Thank God beards have gone out of fashion, eh?) And I worked as an admin assistant for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Worcester.

On Sunday mornings (or sometimes Friday teatimes, for the edited repeat) I would turn on my comically huge cathode ray tube TV, receiving its hilariously archaic analogue UHF signals, and watch Stewart Lee and Richard Herring squeeze as many blasphemies and euphemisms as possible into what was most definitely a pre-watershed slot.

Trying on the Curious Orange head

Broadcast live, TMWRNJ (“TMWRNJ!“) was a surreal, sketch-packed affair loosely hung on the format of a spoof daytime show. Memorable characters included the Curious Orange, Simon Quinlank and his weak lemon drink, Jesus (“Aaaaah!”/”No, not ‘aaaah’!”) and an inexplicably jelly-obsessed Rod Hull.

Each week Lee and Herring would crown someone “King of the Show”, a largely ceremonial office with no real power. Usually it was a random member of the studio audience, but in an episode which saw Rich taking a shady product placement deal from Ian Cress of the Cress Marketing Board, a competition was announced. The next week’s King of the Show would be whoever could make the best advert for cress.

Immediately I picked up my amusingly quaint landline and tediously placed a call to my friend Matt Hodges by pressing a sequence of numbers associated with his own, equally quaint landline, a sequence of numbers I had to remember using my actual brain or possibly pen and paper. Do you remember the nineties, Stew? Weren’t they hilarious? Ahahahahahahaha!

Matt and I backstage with the Curious Alien, TV’s Emma Kennedy and Darth Maul

Matt was one of the poor unfortunates who regularly got roped into appearing in my amateur filmmaking efforts with my Video-8 camcorder. A massive Python fan, Matt’s influence had ensured that I churned out many surreal comedies in those halcyon days.

We quickly came up with four ideas for cress commercials, each one spoofing a different type of ad: McDonald’s, army recruitment, charity appeal and gay exchange. Sadly I no longer have copies of the latter three. I recall the army one involved a punnet of cress with a cardboard machine gun glued to it, abseiling down ropes to a bombastic voiceover (“Be the best!”). The charity appeal, shot in the sandpit of our local primary school, featured a cardboard cut-out of Mark Hamill pathetically farming in a desert. (“If you give Mark a punnet of cress, he can feed his family for a day. But give him the means to grow his own cress…”) The less said about the gay exchange one the better.

Matt contemplates his upcoming moment of fame in the glamorous BBC B&B. “I’m going to be on television,” reads the sign.

We sent off the four ads on a VHS tape (imagine Netflix but… oh, never mind) and crossed our fingers.

A few days later, I was sitting at my desk at MAFF, probably trying to skive proper work by writing macros in Excel, when the phone rang. I couldn’t quite believe it when the voice at the other end told me he was calling from TMWRNJ (“TMWRNJ!“), they loved our ads, we were going to be on the show on Sunday, travel and accommodation all paid by the BBC.

That Saturday, Matt and I caught the train to London. Even the decidedly-unglamorous Bayswater B&B we were booked into couldn’t quell our ex-like-a-bird’s-eggs-citement. We spent most of the evening trying to come up with witty proclamations to make when we were crowned. “I’d like to see Jamie open a passage with his magic torch,” was the punchline, but I forget the set-up.

The following morning a taxi dropped us at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, where we felt very important muscling past the queueing audience and into the backstage area. I remember awkwardly hanging around Stew and Rich, agog at meeting actual famous people in real life.

Awkward

The show itself seemed to go by very quickly, and we didn’t get chance to deliver our hilarious Jamie gag. But afterwards we got to hang out and properly meet the cast, having lunch with them in the studio canteen.

Less awkward

Then we were given a tour of the studio and allowed to sit and watch – just the two of us, the rest of the audience having departed – while sketches for the next week’s episode were pre-recorded. These included an instalment of Histor & Pliny, a spoof children’s series featuring a pair of time-travelling crows puppeteered by Stew and Rich, whose dialogue on set that day was considerably bluer than what would ultimately be broadcast. (“Eat the fucking eggs, you cunt!”)

I vividly recall TV’s Emma Kennedy walking past us, dressed in some typically outlandish costume, remarking that she might have just farted a baked bean out of her bumhole. What a great day!

With TV’s Emma Kennedy

Later that year, Matt and I bumped into Stewart Lee on the platform of Worcester Foregate Street station while on our way to the Reading Festival. I asked Stew if we could have a regular slot on the next series of TMWRNJ (“TMWRNJ!“) and he replied in his usual lugubrious tone, “Firstly, we don’t know if we’re going to get another series. And secondly, no.”

We may not have become the next Adam & Joe, but my brief moment in the spotlight did have an impact on my career. It was only when I told the Rural Media Company’s head of production that I had appeared on TV because of a spoof advert I’d made that she agreed to look at my amateur showreel. She saw some potential and started hiring me, kicking off two decades of freelancing.

Egg egg egg-egg egg egg egg-egg-egg egg.

I’ll leave you with Rich’s own thoughts from his blog at the time…

Thanks to everyone who sent in cress photos etc. The lads from Malvern were actually two of the nicest people we’ve had as king and to be honest the clip we showed was not the best thing they sent us, but it was the shortest and most TV friendly. They did a great Gay Exchange parody which was just a bit too rude. We were also very impressed by the editing and choice of shots. Those 2 guys will go far, but I’ve already forgotten their names! Sorry!

This Morning With Richard Not Judy

“The Little Mermaid”: Shooting Shirley

The Little Mermaid, an independent live-action take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, is now showing in cinemas across the USA. To mark the release, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a series of articles about my cinematography of the film, using extracts from the diary I kept during production.

In this first instalment I’ll focus on the “pre-shoot”, two days of capturing the present-day scenes, undertaken a few weeks before principal photography began. For these scenes, we were all very excited to be working with bona fide Hollywood royalty in the form of Shirley MacLaine. Since debuting in the 1955 Hitchcock comedy The Trouble with Harry (and winning a Golden Globe), Shirley’s career has taken in six Oscar nominations as well as a win for Terms of Endearment, plus an AFI Life Achievement Award, two Baftas, an Emmy and several more Golden Globes.

No pressure then….

 

Saturday

Shirley is installed at a five-star hotel in downtown Savannah for hair, make-up and wardrobe tests. Taking it easy at the studio, I get a call from the UPM telling me that Shirley wants to meet me. Nervously I transfer my lighting reference images (including screen grabs I gathered last week from her previous movies) to my iPad and await my car.

When I get to the hotel I bump into her and the rest of the crew in the hall. Plunging straight in, I shake her hand and introduce myself as “Neil Oseman, the DP”. Evidently not hearing that last bit, and presuming I’m a PA or possibly a fan, she looks me up and down and asks me who I am. I repeat that I am the director of photography. “You’re so young!” she exclaims, laughing at her mistake.

“Well, I’ve been doing this for fifteen years,” I reply, all too aware of how short my career is compared with hers.

“Which pictures? Tell me,” she says.

Again acutely aware that my credits list isn’t going to sound very impressive to her, I mention Heretiks, and Ren: The Girl with the Mark and mutter something about doing lots of features.

To my great relief she doesn’t press the point, instead asking what I think of the wig and make-up she’s wearing. I ask her to step into the daylight, and assure her that it looks good, but that I’d like to warm up her skin tone a little with the lighting, an idea she responds well to.

Satisfied, Shirley moves on to other things, and I hang out in a meeting room at the hotel drawing storyboards, until it’s time for a production meeting.

 

SUNDAY

The present-day scenes were shot on Arri Alexas using Zeiss Super Speed Mark I primes and an Angenieux Optimo zoom, diffused with Tiffen Soft FX filters.

I arrive on location before even the early crew call of 8am, with my gaffer Mike Horton. His and key grip Jason Batey’s teams have rigged a dark box around the beach house’s deck/balcony so we can shoot day-for-night interiors.

At 10am Shirley arrives, blocks the scene, then goes off to hair and makeup. We’re starting with close-ups of her, so the grip and electric teams come in and build a book light. (This is a V-shaped arrangement of bounce and diffusion material, resembling an open book, which greatly softens the light fired into it.) When we start to turn over and Shirley watches playback, I’m gratified to find she is very happy with how she looks on camera. We shoot out all her close-ups, then bring in the little girls playing opposite her and block the wide shots.

In the lefthand foreground here is the 2K source for the book light. In the top right you can see the diffusion frame it’s firing through, and you can just make out the poly or rag we attached to the wall to bounce the light back onto Shirley (in the white nightgown). The net in the upper centre is cutting some light off the background. The camera can just be seen on the right of the photo.

As time begins to crunch, I fall back on cross-backlighting as a quick no-brainer solution to get the wide shot looking good. It’s so important to have these lighting templates up your sleeve when the pressure’s on. (Later on in this blog series I’ll discuss the use of cross-backlighting in several other scenes in the movie.)

For a little while it looks like we might not make the day, but I suggest a way to maximise the beautiful beach view at twilight and get the story beats covered in one two-camera set-up. The shot feels like something out of a classic old movie. Shirley MacLaine walking off into the sunset! Everyone loves how it looks, including Shirley. The praise of an actor as experienced as her is high praise indeed, and it makes my day!

 

Monday

At the monitors with producer Rob Molloy. Photo: Brooks Patrick Allen

We start lighting for our “sunset” scene, which involves firing a pink-gelled 6K through the window and netting the background to get some highlight detail into it. Rather than a book light, this time I use a diffused 4×4 Kino Flo as Shirley’s key. I take a risk and place it further off to the side to get a bit more shape into the light.

Shirley enters, takes one glance at the lighting and remarks, “So, you like this cross-light, huh?”

Busted!

We compromise by adding a little fill from a reflector which Shirley positions herself before each take. Her awareness of how she’s being photographed is astounding. She knows more about lighting than some DPs I’ve met!

Looking at the scenes now, I realise that a large white horizontal reflector in front of Shirley would have been perfect to simulate bounce off the bed, which we moved out when we were shooting the close-ups. Hindsight is 20/20, but I’m still pleased with how it turned out.

Next week I’ll break down the huge lighting set-up required for the night exterior circus scenes.

“The Little Mermaid”: Shooting Shirley

Goodbye Final Cut Pro

Recently, having put it off for as long as possible, I upgraded to MacOS High Sierra, the first new OS to not support Final Cut Pro 7. It was a watershed moment for me. Editing used to comprise at least half of my work, and Final Cut had been there throughout my entire editing career.

I first heard of Final Cut in early 2000, when it was still on version one. The Rural Media Company in Hereford, which was my main client at the start of my freelance career, had purchased a copy to go with their shiny Mac G3. The problem was, no-one at the company knew how to use it.

Meanwhile, I was lobbying to get some time in the Avid edit suite (a much hallowed and expensive room) to cut behind-the-scenes footage from Integr8, a film course I’d taken part in the previous summer. The course and its funding were long finished, but since so much BTS footage had been shot, I felt it was a shame not to do something with it.

Being 19 and commensurately inexperienced, I was denied time on the Avid. Instead, the head of production suggested I use the G3 which was sitting idle and misunderstood in one of the offices. Disappointed but rising to the challenge, I borrowed the manual for Final Cut Pro, took it home and read it cover to cover. Then I came back in and set to work cutting the Integr8  footage.

Editing in 2000 was undergoing a huge (excuse the pun) transition. In the back of the equipment storeroom, Rural Media still had a tape-to-tape editing system, but it had already fallen almost completely out of use. Editing had gone non-linear.

In a room next to the kitchen was the Optima suite. This was a computer (I forget what type) fitted with a low resolution analogue video capture card and an off-line editing app called Optima. In this suite you would craft your programme from the low-rez clips, exporting an EDL (Edit Decision List) onto a floppy disc when you were done. This you took into the Avid suite to be on-lined – recapturing just the clips that were needed in full, glorious, standard definition. You could make a few fine adjustments and do a bit of grading before outputting the finished product back to tape.

It wasn’t practical to do the whole edit on the Avid because (a) hard drives big enough to store all the media for a film at full rez weren’t really available at that time, and (b) the Avid system was hellishly expensive and therefore time on it was charged at a premium rate.

As I edited the Integr8 BTS on Final Cut Pro, I believed I was using an off-line system similar to the Optima. The images displayed in the Viewer and Canvas were certainly blocky and posterised. But when I recorded the finished edit back to tape, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Peering through the viewfinder of the Mini-DV camera which I was using as a recording deck, I was astonished to see the programme playing at the exact same quality it had been shot at. This little G3 and the relatively affordable app on it were a complete, professional quality editing system.

I looked across the office to the sign on the Avid suite’s door. It might as well have read: “DINOSAUR”.

Within a few months I had invested in my own Mac – a G4, no less – and was using FCP regularly. The next year I used it to cut my first feature, The Beacon, and three more feature-length projects followed in the years after that, along with countless shorts and corporates. Using FCP became second nature to me, with the keyboard shortcuts hard-wired into my reflexes.

And it wasn’t just me. Final Cut became ubiquitous in the no-/low-budget sector. Did it have its flaws? Definitely. It crashed more often than Richard Hammond. I can think of no other piece of software I’ve screamed so much at (with the exception of a horrific early desktop publishing app which I masochistically used to create some Media Studies GCSE coursework).

And of course Apple shat all over themselves in 2011 when they released the much-reviled Final Cut X, causing many loyal users to jump ship. I stayed well away from the abomination, sticking with the old FCP 7 until I officially quit editing in 2014, and continuing to use it for personal projects long after that.

So it was quite a big deal for me to finally let it go. I’ve got DaVinci Resolve installed now, for the odd occasion when I need to recut my showreel. It’s not the same though.

Timelines aren’t my world any more, light is, but whenever I look back on my years as an editor, Final Cut Pro’s brushed-aluminium interface will always materialise in my mind’s eye.

Goodbye Final Cut Pro

12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

I joined this social media platform last summer, after hearing DP Ed Moore say in an interview that his Instagram feed helps him get work. I can’t say that’s happened for me yet, but an attractive Instagram feed can’t do any creative freelancer any harm. And for photographers and cinematographers, it’s a great way to practice our skills.

The tips below are primarily aimed at people who are using a phone camera to take their pictures, but many of them will apply to all types of photography.

The particular challenge with Instagram images is that they’re usually viewed on a phone screen; they’re small, so they have to be easy for the brain to decipher. That means reducing clutter, keeping things bold and simple.

Here are twelve tips for putting this philosophy into practice. The examples are all taken from my own feed, and were taken with an iPhone 5, almost always using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode to get the best tonal range.

 

1. choose your background carefully

The biggest challenge I find in taking snaps with my phone is the huge depth of field. This makes it critical to have a suitable, non-distracting background, because it can’t be thrown out of focus. In the pub photo below, I chose to shoot against the blank pillar rather than against the racks of drinks behind the bar, so that the beer and lens mug would stand out clearly. For the Lego photo, I moved the model away from a messy table covered in multi-coloured blocks to use a red-only tray as a background instead.

 

2. Find Frames within frames

The Instagram filters all have a frame option which can be activated to give your image a white border, or a fake 35mm negative surround, and so on. An improvement on this is to compose your image so that it has a built-in frame. (I discussed frames within frames in a number of my recent posts on composition.)

 

3. try symmetrical composition

To my eye, the square aspect ratio of Instagram is not wide enough for The Rule of Thirds to be useful in most cases. Instead, I find the most arresting compositions are central, symmetrical ones.

 

4. Consider Shooting flat on

In cinematography, an impression of depth is usually desirable, but in a little Instagram image I find that two-dimensionality can sometimes work better. Such photos take on a graphical quality, like icons, which I find really interesting. The key thing is that 2D pictures are easier for your brain to interpret when they’re small, or when they’re flashing past as you scroll.

 

5. Look for shapes

Finding common shapes in a structure or natural environment can be a good way to make your photo catch the eye. In these examples I spotted an ‘S’ shape in the clouds and footpath, and an ‘A’ shape in the architecture.

 

6. Look for textures

Textures can add interest to your image. Remember the golden rule of avoiding clutter though. Often textures will look best if they’re very bold, like the branches of the tree against the misty sky here, or if they’re very close-up, like this cathedral door.

 

7. Shoot into the light

Most of you will not be lighting your Instagram pics artificially, so you need to be aware of the existing light falling on your subject. Often the strongest look is achieved by shooting towards the light. In certain situations this can create interesting silhouettes, but often there are enough reflective surfaces around to fill in the shadows so you can get the beauty of the backlight and still see the detail in your subject. You definitely need to be in HDR mode for this.

 

8. Look for interesting light

It’s also worth looking out for interesting light which may make a dull subject into something worth capturing. Nature provides interesting light every day at sunrise and sunset, so these are good times to keep an eye out for photo ops.

 

9. Use lens flare for interest

Photographers have been using lens flare to add an extra something to their pictures for decades, and certain science fiction movies have also been known to use (ahem) one or two. To avoid a flare being too overpowering, position your camera so as to hide part of the sun behind a foreground object. To get that anamorphic cinema look, wipe your finger vertically across your camera lens. The natural oils on your skin will cause a flare at 90° to the direction you wiped in. (Best not try this with that rented set of Master Primes though.)

 

10. Control your palette

Nothing gives an image a sense of unity and professionalism as quickly as a controlled colour palette. You can do this in-camera, like I did below by choosing the purple cushion to photograph the book on, or by adjusting the saturation and colour cast in the Photos app, as I did with the Canary Wharf image. For another example, see the Lego shot under point 3.

 

11. Wait for the right moment

Any good photographer knows that patience is a virtue. Waiting for pedestrians or vehicles to reach just the right spot in your composition before tapping the shutter can make the difference between a bold, eye-catching photo and a cluttered mess. In the below examples, I waited until the pedestrians (left) and the rowing boat and swans (right) were best placed against the background for contrast and composition before taking the shot.

 

12. Quality control

One final thing to consider: is the photo you’ve just taken worthy of your Instagram profile, or is it going to drag down the quality of your feed? If it’s not good, maybe you should keep it to yourself.

Check out my Instagram feed to see if you think I’ve broken this rule!

12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

Book Review: “Magic Hour” by Jack Cardiff

If Roger Deakins is the greatest living cinematographer, Jack Cardiff must be the greatest one no longer with us. He is perhaps best known for his triptych of Technicolor collaborations with Powell & Pressburger – A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus (which won Cardiff an Oscar and a Golden Globe) and The Red Shoes. But his career spanned a huge swathe of cinematic history, beginning in the days of the silent film and concluding in the age of action blockbusters like Rambo: First Blood Part II. Along the way he photographed many of the twentieth century’s most iconic movie stars: Humphrey Bogart, Sophia Loren, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier, Audrey Hepburn and Kirk Douglas, to name but a few.

Magic Hour is Cardiff’s autobiography, first published in 1996. (Yes, I’m reviewing this book 21 years late. Sorry.) From the beginning, his life was remarkable. His parents were travelling music hall performers, and he never stayed at the same school for long. But what he might have lacked in conventional education he more than made up for with a voracious appetite for literature and fine art.

One day, gazing at a roomful of paintings, I realized something starkly obvious that I’d never noticed before. Light! Now I gave all my attention to the way painters used light and also began the habit of analysing the light all around me: in rooms, buses, trains – everywhere. How light plays subtle tricks, bouncing off walls, how its various reflections and changed light sources can reveal much insight into the character of a face.

After a few movie appearances as a child actor, Cardiff found work as a camera assistant at Elstree, eventually rising to the rank of camera operator. One day, he and his fellow operators were interviewed to see who would go to America to learn all about the new Technicolor process. Cardiff cut short the technical questions and held forth on the great painters who inspired him. He was selected.

Cardiff (left) and his operator Geoffrey Unsworth with the comically huge Technicolor camera

The Technicolor camera was enormous and required precision maintenance, but Cardiff was to get stunning results from it.

Over the next quarter of a century, until the advent of single-film Eastmancolor, which tolled the death knell of the three-strip camera, I used this superb Rolls-Royce of a beauty all over the world in all kinds of dangerous situations: in steel foundries (inches away from molten ingots), in battleships in wartime seas, on top of erupting volcanoes, in burning deserts and steaming jungles, and diving on to the Colosseum in Rome in an old Italian bomber.

The above passage neatly sums up the kind of adventures Cardiff chronicles in Magic Hour. Anyone who’s ever worked on a film set will have a few ridiculous anecdotes to tell, and this man had a lifetime’s worth. For example, during World War II, Cardiff was tapped to lens a propaganda drama called Western Approaches. One scene required the sinking of a submarine, which was achieved without VFX of any kind, with the vessel doing a controlled dive to end up just short of total submersion. “My Technicolor camera was tied on to the extreme tip of the stern,” wrote Cardiff, “and I was operating it!”

Frame of Cardiff’s Oscar-winning work from “Black Narcissus” (1947, dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

After the war he came to the attention of director/producer team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, leading to that famous triptych noted in my introduction, before going on to work with many other renowned filmmakers. His collaboration with Hitchcock, Under Capricorn, featured a memorable scene in which the four-foot-high Technicolor camera was required to track along the length of a dining table. This being impossible, the table was rigged to split apart as the camera advanced.

Now the camera moved forward, seemingly on an inevitable collision course, but at the last moment, each of the guests fell back on to a mattress clutching his section of the table with all the props stuck on it!

Magic Hour is beautifully and sincerely written, making you wish you could share a pint with the great man and hear even more of his beguiling tales of cinematic capers. Throughout the book, he provides unique insights into the off-screen lives of the Hollywood icons he worked alongside: his friendship with the “childlike, frightened Marilyn”; his unconsummated romance with Sophia Loren; his chat with Errol Flynn about the latter’s womanising, and many others.

Cardiff and Monroe on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957)

We are also treated to fascinating glimpses into Cardiff’s creativity as a cinematographer. For example, when faced with an exterior close-up whose grey, cloudy background would not match earlier sunny wide shots, Cardiff shone an ungelled tungsten lamp on the talent and instructed the lab to correct for his skin tone. The lab duly added blue to the print, restoring the talent’s skin tone to normal and tinting the grey sky a perfect blue! Can you imagine performing such a risky experiment and not knowing until the following day whether it had succeeded or not? We digital DPs are truly spoilt.

Another example of Cardiff’s ingenuity was on 1956’s War and Peace, where he had to create a sunrise effect on a glass matte painting.

I placed a small lamp close beside my camera which was brightly reflected in the sheet of glass. [This had] pink and orange filters on it. Although a tiny lamp, its reflection in the glass looked exactly like a dawn sun on the horizon.

In the late fifities, Cardiff moved into directing, and the great critical and commercial success of his 1960 film Sons and Loverforms the denouement of Magic Hour. He later returned to DPing with such mainstream movies as Death on the Nile and Conan the Destroyer, a period of his life which Cardiff gives only a passing mention in the closing chapter. Perhaps he was less proud of the modern box office fodder than his earlier, arguably more artistic, work?

Cardiff in a shot from “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff” (2010, dir. Craig McCall)

Cardiff died in 2009, the year before the release of the documentary feature Cameraman: The Life and Word of Jack Cardiff. Whether you choose to learn about Cardiff’s contributions to cinema from that excellent film or from the equally absorbing Magic Hour, learn you should. The word “legendary” is over-used, but Cardiff is more deserving of the adjective than most.

Book Review: “Magic Hour” by Jack Cardiff

7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching

We’ve all heard the shocking statistics about the tiny proportion of DPs who are women. So when you watch film and TV, sadly, you might assume that you’re always watching the cinematography of a man. Today’s post encourages you to think again.

To mark International Women’s Day, I’m highlighting the work of seven female DPs who are lensing mainstream productions, and whose cinematography you’ve probably seen. All of these women are great role models for aspiring DPs.

 

Sharon Calahan, ASC


Raised in the USA’s Pacific Northwest, Calahan studied advertising art, illustration, and graphic design. Her first job was at a TV station, where she worked as an art director but also got involved in lighting sets. She joined Pixar just as the company was starting out, becoming the lighting supervisor on Toy Story, before graduating to director of photography for A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. In 2014, Calahan became the first DP working purely in CGI to be admitted into the American Society of Cinematographers. By this time, her extensive experience of studying and mimicking natural light had led her to take up landscape painting, and for Pixar’s next release, The Good Dinosaur, director Peter Sohn used Calahan’s landscapes as the visual template for the entire look.

 

Anna Foerster, ASC

 
 

A German cinematographer and director, Foerster is perhaps best known for her collaborations with her fellow countryman Roland Emmerich. After working as an FX unit DP for him on Independence Day and Godzilla (1998), then second unit DP and director on Tomorrow and 10,000 BC, she graduated to first unit DP on Anonymous and White House Down. Anonymous is an independent historical thriller suggesting Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Lord Oxford, while White House Down is of course an all-out action thriller. On the latter, Foerster came up with a number of clever tricks to hide the lighting units from the wide lenses she favoured. She also worked hard to sell the sound-stages that most of the movie was shot on as real day-lit interior and exterior locations. Foerster’s directing credits include Underworld: Blood Wars, and episodes of Outlander and Criminal Minds.

 

Sue Gibson, BSC

Derbyshire-born Gibson developed an interest in photography at the age of fourteen. She studied at Newport College of Art, then at the National Film and Television School (NFTS), graduating in 1981. After starting out in commercials, she shot her first feature, Hear My Song, in 1989, which won The Evening Standard Award for Technical Achievement. Her other feature credits include Mrs Dalloway and – in a very different genre – second unit on Alien vs. Predator. She worked extensively in British TV, particularly murder mystery, lensing episodes of Poirot, Marple, LewisSpooks and The Forsyte Saga. In 1992 Gibson became the first female member of the British Society of Cinematographers, and later served as its president between 2008-2010. She passed away last summer, and was posthumously awarded The Philips Vari-Lite Award for Drama at The Knight of Illuminations Awards for two of her Death in Paradise episodes, her final work.

 

Ellen Kuras, ASC

Born in New Jersey, Kuras studied photography and 8mm filmmaking after university, with a view to becoming a documentary filmmaker. After lensing the award-winning short doc Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, her career diversified to eventually include such big-budget features as Blow and Analyze That. Kuras has also collaborated twice with French director Michel Gondry. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she used her documentary background to put the realism into Gondry’s magical realism, with handheld cameras and naturalistic lighting. But she brought the magic too; for example, using a camera-mounted spotlight for a tunnel vision effect during the sequence in which Jim Carey and Kate Winslet try to hide within Carey’s memory. Although more classically composed, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind was similarly creative, featuring low-fi VHS recreations of big movies, and a memorable montage captured in a single developing shot. Kuras’ many awards include an unprecedented hat-trick of Best Dramatic Cinematography gongs at Sundance, and an Oscar nomination for The Betrayal – Nerakhoon, a documentary feature she directed.

 

Suzie Lavelle, ISC

Lavelle is an Irish DP who studied at NFTS before entering the TV industry as an AC. Her sumptuous, colourful and contrasty lighting has featured in some of the BBC’s most high-profile TV dramas. “The Abominable Bride”, her Sherlock outing, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 2016. “Cold War”, her contribution to Doctor Who‘s 2013 season, is one of the best-looking and most atmospheric episodes the venerable series has ever produced.  And, along with James Mather, she swept away the dull photography of Ripper Street‘s first two seasons and established the much moodier style for season three that would continue for the rest of the show’s run. Lavelle’s other TV credits include VikingsThe Living and the Dead, Endeavour and Jekyll & Hyde, and she photographed the award-winning features One Hundred Mornings and The Other Side of Sleep.

 

Urszula Pontikos, BSC

Hailing from Gdynia in Poland, Pontikos has photographed a number of indie features, including Weekend, Second Coming and Lilting. The latter won her the Cinematography Award for World Cinema (Dramatic) at Sundance 2014, but she’s also shot some of the most interesting British TV shows of recent years. Despite a self-confessed nervousness about the scale of the show’s night exteriors, Pontikos delivered confident, slick and atmospheric cinematography for BBC 1’s Cold War spy thriller The Game in 2014. The following year she photographed the first two episodes of Humans, setting the style for this hugely popular C4 sci-fi drama. She employed unusual eye-lights, symmetrical composition and linear camera moves for scenes featuring the robotic “synths”. Her other TV credits include the crime dramas Glue for E4 and Marcella for ITV.

 

Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC

Born and raised in Melbourne, Walker got her first industry contacts from a short film course she took after graduation. Persistently calling these contacts yielded some unpaid work and her first feature at the age of just 25. More Aussie features followed, until a Chanel Nº 5 commercial with Baz Luhrmann and Nicole Kidman propelled Walker into the big-time with an epic drama, entitled – of course – Australia. Since then, Walker has lensed the likes of Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun) and Robert Redford (Truth). Her latest release is Hidden Figures, an inspiring and important drama about African-American women who worked on Nasa’s space programme. Walker used subtle techniques to enhance the themes of racism and sexism, like placing the camera below the heroine’s eye-lines so that they were always looking up at the white men. Hidden Figures is in cinemas across the UK right now, and I highly recommend it.

 

That’s all for now, but some other great DPs to check out are Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train), Uta Briesewitz, ASC (The Wire) and Cynthia Pusheck, ASC (Magnolia).

7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching